Man on the thin line:
Chinese cinema and capitalism’s second coming

review by Li Zeng

Economy, Emotion, and Ethics in Chinese Cinema: Globalization on Speed by David Leiwei Li (Routledge, 2016). 248 pp., $51.95 paper.

In a short span of three decades, China has experienced capitalist transformation at an unprecedented speed and scale, compared to its emergence over three centuries in the West. This hyper-compressed development has tremendously, and ruthlessly, changed individual subjectivity, social relations, and the emotional economy in China and the Sinophone world. Largely drawing on Marxist theory and the philosophy of neoliberal capitalism, Economy, Emotion, and Ethics in Chinese Cinema probes into films produced in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and Hong Kong, to reveal the remaking of Chinese-ness and the Chinese subject under the influence of rapid capitalist implementation and its dehumanizing impact. In the book’s Introduction, David Leiwei Li explains that he uses Chinese cinema as “semantic shorthand for ‘Chinese-language cinema,’ downplaying geopolitical divisions while heightening a shared Sinophonic-phenotypical visual identity.” (6)

Li also aims as a central goal to imagine possibilities of cultural resistance to what he calls “Capitalism’s Second Coming.” Li identifies “Capitalism’s First Coming” in China as a result of China’s defeat in the Opium Wars (1840-42), and the Second Coming as launched in the Deng Xiaoping era (1976-89) after an intermission of “Mao’s nationalist independence… ending decisively the era of Capitalism’s First Coming.” (3) Li applies “Capitalism’s Second Coming” to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong without differentiating their geopolitical and historical specificities.  Overall, Li undertakes in the book a

“symptomatic interpretation of Chinese cinema’s mediation and contestation of a neobourgeois reality, rationality, and affectivity.” (10)

Economy, Emotion, and Ethics in Chinese Cinema does not offer a conventional or focused cinema studies approach, for film is not the end, but rather the means, of Li’s project.  Li deploys film as a medium through which the reader can better understand the “unfathomable macroscopic forces” of global capitalist transformation, and the “always abstract theories of a global imaginary.” (10) Although Li analyzes a selection of Chinese films primarily to illustrate how global capitalism works and impacts social subjects, his dense discussion of cultural and political theories and the consequences of neoliberalism do reveal philosophical depth in the cinematic texts.  The framing invites the reader to understand the work as a dialogue between the film medium and social and political theories about capitalist modernity.

The book consists of three sections, each focusing on a particular thematic concern that those specific title terms suggest. Part I studies the construction of the liberal and neoliberal Chinese subject through examination of Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) and Zhou Xiaowen’s Ermo (1994) in Chapter 1 and Zhang Yuan’s documentary Crazy English (1999) in Chapter 2. Li views Red Sorghum as an allegory of “primitive accumulation.” The character whom the film’s narrator calls Grandpa, in his claim of Grandma and the sequential possession of the winery, represents for Li the new spirit of capitalism, for Grandpa embodies the convergence of the individual pursuit of happiness and the lust for material gain. The title character in Ermo, a film which follows a peasant woman’s quest for the largest television set in her county, manifests in Li’s interpretation the transformation from an agrarian socialist subject to a “self-possessive individual.” While Li posits that Red Sorghum and Ermo reflect the transformation of the Chinese peasant subject, he argues that Crazy English documents the emergence of the neoliberal Chinese urban subject. Zhang Yuan’s documentary follows Li Yang, a young entrepreneur who has made his “Crazy English” language-learning program a multimillion-dollar brand name. Li maintains that Li Yang’s success serves as an allegory for the personal and psychological actualization of neoliberalism “with Chinese characteristics.”  

The most thought-provoking section in Part I is Li’s case study of Ermo, which interweaves dense theoretical and philosophical discussions into detailed textual analysis. Departing from Macpherson’s concept of “the possessive individual,” Li sheds lights on how possessive individualism infuses the character Ermo with agency and self-assertion and gives her the power to resist patriarchal domination (represented by her husband) and to pursue her desire. While finding that the film affirms the new neoliberal subject’s productive energy, Li points out that Ermo overall expresses skepticism toward the progressive spread of free market capitalism. Drawing on Anthony Giddens’ concept of “disembedding” (lifting out of things, people, etc. from their original context), Li argues that Ermo’s uneasy journey reflects the conflict between capitalist modernity’s promise of individual freedom and the emotional and physical exhaustion of chasing the desired commodity. This film captures the predicament of the Chinese people caught in a rapid economic and social transformation.

While Part I studies the formation of the neoliberal subject wrought by capitalism’s resurgence in China, Part II provides a cinematic meditation on neoliberal sociality, namely on how deregulation and self-possessive individualism affect social relations and feelings. In Chapter 3 Li turns to Ang Lee’s “father trilogy” – Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994) – and Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times (2000), and in Chapter 4 to works by Taiwanese New Wave directors Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, to demonstrate the contestation of emotion and ethics in contemporary family and individual life.

Chapter 3 takes “(re)production” and “(re)creation” as an interpretative framework. Li explains,

“If precapitalist Chinese communities are rooted in a social order of (re)production that privileges a localized linear temporality, a generative time for species perpetuity, the precipitation of Capital’s Second Coming in East Asia disrupts this practice in the promotion of individual (re)creational time.” (95)

For Li, the core of capitalism’s ethical conflict lies in the irreconcilability between the historical insistence on (re)productive continuity and the modern necessity of (re)creational individuality. Li argues that Ang Lee’s father trilogy addresses this conflict and provides either regressive or fantastic solutions. The three films share a similar conflict – the children’s predicaments when faced with a choice between pursuing their personal happiness and meeting their father’s wishes. Thus, in Pushing Hands, the son does not know how to solve the conflict between his father and his Caucasian American wife; in Wedding Banquet, the gay son fakes a marriage to satisfy his father’s wish for grandchildren; and in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, the daughters feel pressured to maintain the family in the old ways valued by their widowed father.  

But the films all have a feel-good ending: Pushing Hands ends with the father’s self-removal from the nuclear family; Wedding Banquet ends with a reconciliation between the father and the son, between heterosexuality and homosexuality; and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman ends with the father starting a new family with a much younger woman.  Li argues that what lies at the core of these solutions is the attenuation of generational affective ties, which is “a precondition of capitalist economic expansion, since the discontinuity of generational rites of passage is presumed to accentuate individual mobility.” (98)  David Li sees the grandpa’s self-removal in Pushing Hands as Ang Lee’s admission of the necessity for nuclear familial restoration:

“[T]he obsolescence of on-site filial care is as inevitable as the triumph of neoliberal self-care is indisputable.” (98)  

Li criticizes particularly Eat, Drink, Man, Woman as a filmic fantasy of neoliberalism’s family values: “the privatization of care” coalesces with “the technology of self-care,” which promotes the remaking of the individual in the spirit of endless growth.

While criticizing Ang Lee’s trilogy as somewhat socially regressive for displacing questions of social welfare (care for the elderly and the vulnerable), Li finds an “unabashed cinematic argument” for “the ethic of care” in Zhang Yimou’s Happy Times, a film about a middle-aged man trying to help a blind girl who is abandoned by her biological father. The film calls attention to the pressing needs of the disabled and the immobile, exposes a reality to which global capitalism turns a blind eye, and raises critical questions about social responsibility. Li maintains that Zhang’s film offers a cinematic model of cosmopolitan collectivity, a conscientious form of affiliation extending beyond the biological and the nuclear family. Through the altruist protagonist, Li argues, Zhang proposes an alternative conception of emotional economy that integrates individual fulfillment with nurturing sites of social continuity.  

Chapter 4 studies productions by two filmmakers raised in Taiwan: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times and Edward Yang’s monadic trilogy,” A Confucian Confusion (1994), Mahjong/Majang (1996), and Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000). Li shows how these films represent “emotional capitalism.” Hou’s Three Times consists of three romance stories set in different periods: the Taiwanese industrialization in 1966 (“Dreams of Romance”), the Chinese Republican Revolution in 1911 (“Dreams of Liberty”), and globalization of capitalism circa 2005 (“Dreams of Youth”). “Dreams of Romance” celebrates a monogamous coupling based on reciprocity of autonomous selfhood in a period of welfare capitalism in Taiwan. It contrasts to the unequaled gender politics in “Dreams of Liberty” and emotional desperation and desolation as a result of rapid accumulation of profits and pleasures in “Dream of Youth.” Li argues that the achronological arrangement of the storylines reveals Hou’s evaluation of the three historical moments – “Dream of Romance,” set in 1966, being the most humane and liberating story, and thus the best of times.

Among Yang’s trilogy, Li views Yi Yi, a portrayal of a multigenerational middle-class family in Taipei, as the most incisive in its artistic grappling with the economic and emotional phenomena of Capital’s Second Coming. To analyze this film, Li proposes “reflexive modernity” as his theoretical frame. At the core of reflexive modernity is reflexive individualization, which is “a concerted call to liberate individuals from the postwar welfare capitalism of democratic nation-states,” to free individuals from communal ties, from ethical content. (146) Through insightful analysis of the film’s depictions of family relations, marriage and romance, as well as the mise-en-scene of the city space (for instance the use of abundant glass in metropolitan architecture to reflect a transnational space), Li argues that Yi Yi offers an unflinching critique of reflexive modernity. Further, it emphasizes ethical imperatives, conveyed most incisively in the film’s ending, with the couple’s decision to stay together. The couple’s reconciliation indicates a shared refusal of endless emotional experiments,

“a caution against reckless movements and unbridled mobility in the Second Coming of Capital.” (159)

The last two chapters of the book, which comprise Part III, are devoted to Jia Zhangke, the leading figure of China’s “Sixth Generation” filmmakers, and Fruit Chan, a renowned independent Hong Kong filmmaker. Li presents a strong case that Jia’s neorealist style in Still Life (2006), with its focus on daily reality and socially marginalized groups, serves as aesthetic resistance to neoliberalism’s “creative destruction.” Jia’s sympathetic and affective representation of the male protagonist, representing the laboring people who are left behind by capitalism’s fast-turning wheels, expresses the director’s ethical commitment to “solidarity and equality as well as an artistic revision of the neoliberal teleology of history.” (193) The male protagonist’s unwavering affective allegiance to his wife represents for Li

“the affirmative structures of feeling and resources of resistance to the forward motion of creative destruction.” (193)

Jia’s warning against neoliberalism’s “creative destruction” is invoked in the film’s closing image of a stick figure suspended on a high wire between two partially demolished buildings. In this strong section of the book, Li’s commentary seems as profound and powerful as Jia’s visual symbolism:

“For the citizens of the world to avoid their fall over the man-made abyss hollowed by the hunger of constant creative destruction and to secure the continuous survival and thriving of the earth and its species, as Jia indicates with his closing image, a political and planetary common must be imagined, and limits to endless capitalist growth evoked and enforced in perpetuity.” (194)

The book ends with an allegorical reading of Fruit Chan’s Dumplings, a dark horror film about anthropophagy. A woman’s secret fountain of youth turns out to be dumplings made of unborn fetuses. Li views Dumplings as a “cinematic allegorization of capitalism qua cannibalism.” (206) He describes neoliberal capitalism’s subordination of societal interests, its incitation of excessive appetites, and its speculation of growth beyond limits as cannibalistic. Through a close analysis of Dumplings, particularly of its disturbing ending, Li argues that this postmodern horror film portrays cannibal capitalism’s creative destruction at its own peril. Li concludes that Chan compels us to

“abide by nature’s (re)productive time, encouraging a world democracy of effective regulation and equitable distribution for the collective thriving of our planet and its living beings.” (218)

 Economy, Emotion, and Ethics in Chinese Cinema probes contemporary Chinese cinema with political insight, philosophical depth, and critical poignancy. Li’s passionate and eloquent analysis of the narratives and imagery of some compelling films made in the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong strongly demonstrates Chinese cinema’s engagement with the development of global capitalism and modernity and its simultaneous critique of neoliberalism. Though existing scholarship on Chinese-language cinema has touched on the subject of film reflecting and/or confronting capitalist modernity in the Sinophone world,[1] [open endnotes in new window] Li’s work is a much more dense and substantial study, offering a profound “tracking shot of Chinese cinema’s creation of figures/forms/images about Capitalism’s Second Coming” (10). The book thus forms a dialogue with other approaches to nation, subjectivity, and transnational identity in Chinse-language films.[2] It can be of great value and interest to graduate students and scholars who are interested in contemporary Chinese cinema or China’s social and economic transformation in the last three decades.

The book has its limits and challenges. First, though Li’s approach is to engage in a dialogue between the film medium and social and political theory on capitalist modernity, the theoretical aspects sometimes take over and run their own course. Second, the selection of the film texts only includes works by critically acclaimed male directors: Zhang Yimou, Zhang Yuan, Jia Zhangke, Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsian, Edward Yang, and Fruit Chan. Chan’s Dumplings, of course, is based on the acclaimed Lillian Lee novel and highlights a woman’s perspective on capitalism at the Hong Kong/PRC border.

Nevertheless, Li’s book would be stronger and more convincing if it included studies of contemporary women directors’ works and their insights on society and individual subjectivity under the influence of rapid capitalist implementation. For instance, Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui’s The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2005) is a poignant cinematic look at the impact of social and economic transformation on ordinary people’s lives. Other influential women directors include Peng Xiaolian (Shanghai Story/Meili Shanghai, 2004), Ning Ying (For Fun/Zhao Le, 1993; On the Beat/Mingjing gushi, 1995), and Sylvia Chang (Tempting Heart, 1999; 20 30 40, 2004). Chinese Women’s Cinema: Transnational Contexts (Wang 2001), an anthology that centers on women filmmakers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora, would provide a valuable complement to Li’s work.[3]

Another weakness is Li’s non-differentiated approach to the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as laid out above. Though they share, in some ways, a similar compressed capitalist development, different political structures and historical factors complicate the formation and remaking of the Chinese neoliberal subject. For example, Taiwan’s capitalist development cannot be fully grasped without considering Japan’s occupation of the island (1895-1945) and the imposition of martial law (1949-1987). Similarly, the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to the PRC arguably has posed greater anxiety for the citizens of Hong Kong than the spread of capitalism in the last two decades of the twentieth century. In addition, distinctive film cultures and industries in the three geopolitical territories have influenced the way filmmakers react to “Chinese-ness” and to Capitalism’s “Second Coming”.[4] Ignoring those specificities, Li’s approach simplifies the construction and (re)forming of the Chinese subject in the Sinophone world.

Despite its limitations, Economy, Emotion, and Ethics in Chinese Cinema stands as an important and ambitious scholarly interpretation of contemporary Chinese cinema in relation to criticism of neoliberal capitalism. Its dialogue between film and social and political theory makes the book a valuable addition to both film scholarship and cultural studies. We have to agree with Li that

“We cannot think about culture without simultaneously thinking about it through material history.” (102)

Li proves his insightfulness through his perceptive analysis of culture/cinema in the throes of the formidable progress of capitalism.